1 of 8Residents cross a street in the dark after a power outage in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, March 7, 2019. A power outage left much of Venezuela in the dark early Thursday evening in what appeared to be one of the largest blackouts yet in a country where power failures have become increasingly common. Crowds of commuters in capital city Caracas were walking home after metro service ground to a halt and traffic snarled as cars struggled to navigate intersections where stoplights were out. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP-https://www.apnews.com/6ba2f69b77e2457da64593a7b8eced16) — Much of Venezuela was still without electricity Friday amid the country’s worst-ever power outage, raising tensions in a country already on edge from ongoing political turmoil.
President Nicolas Maduro ordered schools and all government entities closed and told businesses not to open to facilitate work crews trying to restore power.
By many accounts the blackout hit 22 of 23 states, and it struck the capital at the peak of the evening rush hour Thursday, sending thousands of people on long nighttime treks home through some of the world’s most violent streets. Until now, Caracas has been spared the worst of a collapse in the nation’s grid, but the outage was still wreaking havoc more than 16 hours after it began.
Venezuela’s socialist government blasted the power failure as an “electrical war” directed by the United States. Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez said right-wing extremists intent on causing pandemonium in Venezuela and taking orders from Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio were behind the blackout, although he offered no proof.
Mothers and relatives wait outside of an intense care room for babies at a clinic, during a power outage in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, March 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
“A little bit of patience,” Rodriguez urged on state television early Thursday evening, saying service would be restored in a few hours. “If you’re in your home, stay in your home. If you’re in a protected space or at work, it’s better for you to stay there.”
But as the blackout wore on, patience was running thin.
With normally hyper-active social media eerily silent, residents threw open their windows and banged pots and pans in the darkness, shouting expletives at Maduro in a sign of mounting frustration. Even state TV — the government’s main vehicle for handing down a political line to its followers — went silent.
Those lucky enough to have a battery-powered radio lying around tuned into the few networks still operating, although information remained scarce.
At the darkened maternity ward at the Avila Clinic in wealthy eastern Caracas, several mothers Thursday night cried as nurses holding candles monitored the vital signs of premature babies in incubators after backup generators shut off.
Carlos Ramos, a Caracas resident, stood outside the hospital early Friday along with medical staff and patients in the fading hope he’d be able to see a doctor. He rejected the government’s assertion of sabotage as false.
“They always say that,” Ramos said.
The outage comes as Venezuela is in the throes of a political struggle between Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido, the head of congress who declared himself the nation’s rightful president in January and is recognized by the United States and about 50 nations.
Guaido took to Twitter to blast Maduro for the outage, looking to capitalize on what some decried as a sign of Venezuela’s newfound status as a “failed state” even though it sits atop the world’s largest oil reserves.
“Sabotage is stealing Venezuelans’ money, sabotage is burning food and medicine, sabotage is robbing elections,” he wrote Friday using the hashtag #SinLuz, which translates to ‘without light.’
Venezuela’s electrical system was once the envy of Latin America but it has fallen into disrepair after years of poor maintenance and mismanagement. High-ranking officials have been accused in U.S. court proceedings of looting government money earmarked for the electrical system.
Locals scramble to board a bus after a power outage in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, March 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
While intermittent outages have become regular occurrences in Venezuela of late, rarely have so many states simultaneously been without power for such an extended period.
But as local authorities expressed concern about the sick and elderly, and a few people had to be rescued from elevators, some residents in Caracas expressed awe at the sight of stars hanging over the normally bustling city of 2 million.
Earlier, a snarl of cars jammed the streets amid confusion generated by blackened stoplights; the subway in Caracas broke down; an international soccer match in the central city of Barquisimeto was suspended; and there were reports a flight from neighboring Colombia was turned back because the Caracas airport’s backup generators failed, leaving customs officials without the ability to screen those arriving.
The government keeps home power bills exceptionally low — just a couple dollars a month — relying heavily on subsidies from the Maduro administration, which is under increasing financial duress.
The nation is experiencing hyperinflation projected to reach a mind-boggling 10 million percent this year, is grappling with food and medical shortages, and has lost about 10 percent of its population to migration in the past few years. Venezuela’s economic woes are likely to increase as U.S. sanctions against its oil industry kick in.
State-owned electricity operator Corpoelec blamed the outage on an act of “sabotage” at the Guri Dam, one of the world’s largest hydroelectric stations and the cornerstone of Venezuela’s electrical grid. Rodriguez described it as a “cyber” attack intended to derail the whole system. He said electricity in Venezuela’s eastern region had been restored within two hours.
“What’s the intention?” he said. “To submit the Venezuelan people to various days without electricity to attack, to mistreat, so that vital areas would be without power.”
Pro-government officials often blame outages on Venezuela’s opposition, accusing them of attacking power substations with Molotov cocktails, though they rarely provide any evidence.
Rubio, who has been driving the Trump administration’s confrontational stance toward Maduro, seemed to relish Rodriguez’s accusations that he was somehow to blame for the power crisis.
“My apologies to people of Venezuela,” the Florida Republican said in a message on Twitter. “I must have pressed the wrong thing on the ‘electronic attack’ app I downloaded from Apple. My bad.”